Monterey Church Credits Empowerment for Their Achievement
The Monterey United Church of Christ is a small church in a rural community in Berkshire County who thrives on being small. They have technically 12 members, but soon they will be taking in 11 more—virtually doubling their membership in one fell swoop.
Despite its small size, Monterey has managed to make a big impact in people’s lives. It is an active congregation, and credits responsiveness and empowerment for its vitality.
“We are empowered to start a Sunday School class, to use Godly Play in lieu of some sermons, and to take on leadership roles within the church,” said Sheela Clary, a member who lives 20 minutes away but continues to return each week. “I feel empowered to speak, to stay silent, to recognize myself in the call of confession and the sermon of the pastor and the sermon of the people. There I am empowered to embrace struggle, as I am called to do as a Christian.”
Clary had wanted to start religious education for her daughter when she turned five. When Clary learned about Godly Play through the church’s acquisition of a set of Godly Play materials, she approached Goodman and the two created Godly Play
for Clary’s two daughters as well as the daughters of another local mom. Now Goodman replaces one sermon a month with Godly Play for everyone.
“This program continues to provide our kids, and us moms as teachers, with weekly moments of grace and wonder,” said Clary. “Because I felt comfortable suggesting new programs, we have created a way to help attract additional families to join.”
Newcomer Hannah Fries agrees with Clary’s sense of empowerment at the church. “We feel empowered to dig deep and express our own ideas. As a small congregation, we are able to share our thoughts after the sermon during the ‘homily of the people.’ Hearing others speak thoughtfully and openly--even making themselves vulnerable in a way—
inspires trust and creates a sense of community.” [You can read Rev. Goodman’s blog article about digging deep to help grow the church here.]
As a very small congregation, empowerment is a necessity. Monterey has one paid staff member so creating a vibrant service is reliant on the involvement of everyone. “The service depends on our participation in many ways,” said Fries. “For instance, without a formal choir or music director, our own voices and instruments are what we have for music.”
So when someone felt empowered and showed up at church with a French horn and asked to play along with the hymns on Easter, the answer was a resounding yes. And when, a few years before, a musician showed up a bit under the weather and was unable to perform, the members responded by singing a cappella.
“I’m not a leader who can lead from the front,” explains Rev. Liz Goodman, the pastor at Monterey. “I’ve always been better in response rather than in charge. Small congregations thrive with leadership like that: responsive rather than visionary. And that fits my experience of God too. I have personally always felt God as one who responds to us rather than as one who has a plan for us.”
So how does empowerment and responsiveness translate into doubling membership? Or were there other activities that brought new people in the door?
Fries doesn’t believe that it was any particular activity or outreach that drew in most of the new members. Rather, many just wandered in one Sunday, curious. “The question then, perhaps,“ is why did we come back, and come back again?” she poses, and then answers. “There are many reasons, but what I've heard from other newcomers has to do with a feeling of welcome and acceptance, as well as a feeling of safety—
and, as Sheela said, empowerment to express one's own ideas.”
She continued: “We came back for all of that. And for the people we were beginning to feel connected to, for the support we felt implicitly around us—
and for the challenge, too, to think deeply, honestly, differently, about our relationships to God, to others, and to the world around us.”
Rev. Liz Goodman can be reached at the church office at 413-528-5850, or email email@example.com.